Editorial Board

After Troops Leave, Obama Must Stay Engaged in Afghanistan: View

World leaders can look at the same events and interpret them in radically different ways. So it is with President Barack Obama’s June 22 announcement to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan.

Obama plans to bring home 10,000 troops by the end of 2011, an additional 23,000 by the summer of 2012, and all U.S. combat forces by 2014. From his perspective, the U.S. is “starting this drawdown from a position of strength” -- al-Qaeda has been weakened, Osama bin Laden is dead, and the Taliban have suffered “serious losses.”

Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Afghan government and important regional players such as Pakistan, India, China and Russia see the U.S. withdrawal differently. To them, Obama’s decision indicates that the U.S. is again abandoning Afghanistan. They are likely to compare it to the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989. However false these regional perceptions might be, unless the U.S. moves quickly to counter them, these countries will act in ways that will make it much harder to preserve even limited U.S. gains in Afghanistan.

For most Americans and Europeans, the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979 to 1989) is ancient history. But for Afghans, Pakistanis and Indians, present-day events are following a disturbing pattern. In the 1980s, the U.S. armed the mujahedeen rebels who resisted the Soviet invasion. But once the Soviets withdrew, Afghanistan was no longer a priority for the U.S. As Michael Armacost, a top official responsible for American policy at the time put it, “We weren’t interested in what happened in Afghanistan internally. We were just interested in getting the Russians out.” Afghans and others probably wonder if the U.S. sees Afghanistan the same way today, with “al-Qaeda” substituted for “the Russians.”

Regional Reactions

There are other worrisome parallels. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev viewed Afghanistan as a “bleeding wound” that undermined his efforts to reform the domestic economy and build a benign new international image. Many in the region suspect that Obama, like Gorbachev, would prefer to sacrifice the Afghan government that his country installed and nurtured for 10 years, rather than extend the war.

Faced with potential U.S. abandonment, all the region’s key actors will likely look to protect their interests. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban leadership are Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. Karzai will be tempted to step up efforts to reconcile with elements of the Taliban to unite Pashtuns behind his leadership, even if that alienates Afghanistan’s non-Pashtuns. In turn, non-Pashtun leaders might consider reviving ethnic militias to shield their people from the risk of Pashtun domination.

Another Victory

Many Pakistanis will surely push a new narrative that celebrates the U.S. withdrawal for demonstrating, again, that Islamic militancy can defeat a superpower. Pakistan can be expected to increase support for insurgents in order to ensure its future influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban and the Pakistanis may also try to delay reconciling with Karzai until after the U.S. leaves, because then their leverage will be greater.

India, Russia, the central Asian countries and China will all be concerned that giving the Taliban a share of power would legitimize Islamic militancy and encourage their own extremists. Russia has even supported the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s involvement in Afghanistan. “The minimum that we require from NATO is consolidating a stable political regime in (Afghanistan) and preventing Talibanization of the entire region,” Boris Gromov, the last Soviet commander in Afghanistan, and Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO -- both normally anti-NATO hardliners -- . Iran also opposes a Taliban return to power.

To limit Taliban influence, especially along their borders, these countries will consider reviving the Northern Alliance, a non-Pashtun group that fought the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. That could lead to civil war.

U.S. Actions

Not all of these regional reactions are inevitable. To deter them, the U.S. should move quickly to prevent Afghanistan’s disintegration and strengthen Karzai’s negotiating position. The key is to make absolutely clear that the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops doesn’t mean that America is abandoning Afghanistan. Specifically, Obama should emphasize that the U.S. will maintain a military presence in Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda’s return, to train the Afghan army and to deter attempts by Pakistan or Iran to destabilize Afghanistan. Ideally, officials in Washington should strike an agreement with their counterparts in Kabul on the size and purpose of a post-2014 military presence.

It is important that Obama and the U.S. Congress find the money to pay and equip the Afghan military and police and pay for basic government services until the Afghan government has the resources to do so. The U.S. also needs to reassure the Indians, Central Asians, Russians and Chinese that Afghan reconciliation with parts of the Taliban doesn’t justify an effort to reconstitute the Northern Alliance, or otherwise undermine the government in Kabul. Most important of all is to persuade Pakistan’s leaders not to obstruct negotiations on reconciliation.

The American public is obviously tired of war. On the other hand, few would want to see their government squander a decade of U.S. involvement at a cost of almost 1,700 lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. Having taken ownership of the war, President Obama has to find a way to withdraw while preventing a collapse of the Afghan government and a return to chaos. That is no easy task.